Henry Louis Gates and Disciplining of Recalcitrants

Henry Louis Gates’ New York Times article, “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game,” New York Times, April 22nd, 2010, sits on a conceptual pivot of moral equivalence in its cleverly shaped dismissal of the call for reparations from members of the African-American community to the American state and the mythical community of white Anglo-European owners and controllers American state and the

Gates article is a cleverly disguised politics masking as a history.

Designed to transcend the rancorous tenor of the unbridled partisanship provoked by the reparations movement in the African-American community, Gates promotes an ideological bridle of moral equivalence to stymie and constrict the damaging political effects of this challenge to the conscience of white Anglo-European Americans, one of the three founding communities of the modern American nation, the other Native Americans.

Gates attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the reparations movement by suggesting African elites and Anglo-European slave traders were equal traders engaged in a rational exchange of equivalents-“slaves for trinkets”-and since fair exchange is no robbery, descendants of the two communities in the modern American nation have no right to feel guilty about this aspect of their nation’s past, especially descendants of the Anglo-European American community whose political and economic dominance of American society this movement is designed to challenge and undermine.

“…slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike.”

The slavery business, given the above, for Gates, was a value neutral business beneficial to two parties equal to each other in the pursuit f private profit in a free market. This is so because business is value neutral and as such it is a technical transaction without prejudice when done between equal partners. Such a value neutral enterprise is empty of blame since the responsibility for the conduct of the exchange is mutually shared between economically equal partners. If the historical victors of the trade, the descendants of the Anglo-American enslavers choose to feel guilt over the trade, they choose to do so for reasons removed from the evidence of history. Their reasons are personal and not inspired by the technical neutrality of fair trading but by a self-burdened conscience afflicted with self-ascribed guilt, for there is nothing in either business in general and the slavery business, in particular, which justifies this voluntary indulgence.

In Gates’ hands the politically suspect reading of business to which partisans for reparations subscribe is the causal culprit of white guilt; and this moral, spiritual and psychological leakage within the well meaning liberal white psyche needs be mended by a correct conception of business as value neutral when engaged in by equal partners. Gates’ essay will suture this wound in the white psyche by attempting to protect the liberal white conscience from its self.

The partisans of reparations see business politically, and therefore, wrongfully. Business is evil in their eyes and mind. What they are here doing is collapsing their hatred of the business that enslaved their ancestors with the nature of business itself. Were they to understand that business between equal partners is a mere technically impersonal transaction devoid of personal feeling then they would see as he, Gates, sees: descendants of Anglo-Europeans enslavers are without blame since their African partners in the conduct of the trade were their ancestors equals in trading, therefore there should be no objective economic foundation to guilty feelings among descendants of the historical victors in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was just as much a business for African elites as it was for Anglo-European slave traders. It is this simple and transparent truth, reparations activists refuse to acknowledge, because it interferes with their preferred story of white victimization and black innocence. The capture and sale of African slaves was a source of gold and foreign currency to African elites and a source of slaves to Anglo-Europeans. It was a credible and transparent series of commercial transactions between equal economic partners over a long passage of historical time. Claims Gates:

“But the sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts.”

Africans of the day had fewer emotional or moral problems with the slave trade than contemporary Africans in modern America, their absence of moral judgment on the conduct of the trade is an attitudinal and behavioral guide from which the latter should learn and reflexively accommodate in their deliberations on the issue-(witness Queen Njinga’s behavior towards traditional African leaders after her conversion to Christianity: she sold them into slavery: see above!). African elites in charge of the conduct of the trade saw it as a rational exchange of equivalents between themselves and the various European slave traders on their West African coastline. Their indifference to its existence was a function of the harsh calculus of rational self interest they practiced in pursuit the economic advantage of their kingdom-states against competing kingdom-states and the European slave traders. Asks Gates:

Did these Africans know how harsh slavery was in the New World? Actually, many elite Africans visited Europe in that era, and they did so on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World. For example, when Antonio Manuel, Kongo’s ambassador to the Vatican, went to Europe in 1604, he first stopped in Bahia, Brazil, where he arranged to free a countryman who had been wrongfully enslaved.

African monarchs also sent their children along these same slave routes to be educated in Europe. And there were thousands of former slaves who returned to settle Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Middle Passage, in other words, was sometimes a two-way street. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to claim that Africans were ignorant or innocent.

African elites of the day were aware of the very injuries to the African personality celebrated by partisans of reparations today as proof of the evil of white slave traders. They drew no moral judgment, however; instead, promotes Gates: it was just business; cold; calculating; instrumental rationality; on their part, just like their Anglo-European counterparts. They were disciplined instrumental and rational in pursuit of their self interests. They were realists. As a result, for Gates, they were modern day corporate warriors in embryonic form: they were the historical acorn of the modern day (global) corporate oak tree. The issue of why Anglo-Europeans became ascendant in free market commerce and their African counterparts not when this was an era of primitive capital accumulation for both, from which the seeds of economic growth sprouted for the Anglo-European and did not for the African elites is a question best answered by the evidence of the contemporary realities of modern Africa and that of Anglo-American economic dominance of the modern world.

One people seized the opportunities for progress endlessly reinventing themselves on disciplined and sustained obedience to law and justice the other allowed itself be conquered and corrupted by foreigners and its own moral and political weaknesses.

Gates political history is a politics identifying with the attitudinal complex and emotional insecurities of an American elite for whom the “present order of things”-power, privilege and opportunity- are as they should be, despite the vivid evidence to the contrary for working and middle class America in the present era. This America is a good America; an America whose prominent values, operational efficiencies and deficits are consistent with the central obsession of state, corporation and social classes benefiting from such arrangements: the unregulated accumulation of private wealth.

There is profound disquietude for certain constituencies of onlookers in understanding how someone like Henry Louis Gates can partner the conceptual apparatus of a power system  and its political arrangements which so impales the great mass of those who look like him and from whom he culturally originates, against the temple walls of economic impoverishment when not uselessness. Gates, in promoting a creative and partisan play on the data of American history ingenuously insinuates the Anglo-European American beneficiaries of the business of slavery [read: the Atlantic Slave Trade] are devoid of blame for trading in a rational exchange of equivalents between themselves and the continental African elites providing the pre-enslaved labor sources for their trinkets and guns.

For Gates, trade obeys the proverb, “fair exchange is no robbery,” and therefore the rational exchange of trinkets for human war booty, which here is accidentally African, is a value-free exchange. It is technically pure; morally innocent; and, absent politics. Therefore, the moral opprobrium historically generated against the trade and those that have materially benefited from it, for political purposes, by professional historians, Pan-Africanists, Afrocentricists and Marxists intellectuals all of whom champion the writing of history from the vantage point of its victims, are at best misguided; and, at worst, reverse racists against Anglo-European Americans; a practice they would loathe to perform against the other beneficiary of the trading process-the African elites.

Gates’ assumptions collectively declare economic activity morally neutral since morality and economics do not mix.

This is a fundamental tenet of neoliberal economics-the conceptual framework of American led globalization- through which Gates builds the bridge of moral equivalence between the Anglo-European and African elites involved in the cross Atlantic trading system.

For Gates, descendants of African elites would serve best their own present interests for material development by issuing conceptual, political, economic and cultural subordination to those whose technical mastery of rational economic calculation has made them masters of the modern human universe. There is nothing harmful in learning from your intellectual and cultural superiors if such exchanges are technically value neutral economic and cultural learning exchanges.

The paradox between supporting an economic system based on the separation of economics and morality and a political prescription based on the connection of economics and morality such a moral equivalence can be said to exist between Anglo-European Americans and African elites based in their economic equality as trading partners, is neutralized when one realizes Gates’ conception of morality is the enlightening pivot.

For Gates, the morality through which moral equivalence can be claimed for his two protagonists is a narrow restrictive economic morality, the rules of honest, value-neutral, private profit-making in a free market, an economically centered morality-morality two. Morality one, the more expansive, universal morality of the United Nations Human Rights Code, for example; that morality through which the champions of the abused rights of the African victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade have championed their cause and whose dominant narrative Gates is writing against, for Gates, is a nuisance morality, old skin that should be shedded by it bearers on the march of history to the nirvana of glorious materialism and technical mastery of the mysteries of commerce.

Gates’ bridle of moral equivalence comes with a prescriptive call for behavioral and attitudinal modification both for Africans enamored of the politicized morality of self-righteous victimhood which provides emotional satisfaction and psychological revenge-(get whitey!)-but no wealth; and corporate Anglo-Europeans to whom it issues the call for continued indifference to the reasoned challenges to white supremacy and unbridled capitalism from its critics-(go whitey, go!)- for since the unique American formula of wealth-making has made America number one in the world militarily, economically, politically, culturally, and technologically, how could something so good be so bad if even its critics benefit materially from it. The evidence of the rightness of corporate capitalist leadership of America is in its creative ingenuity, military dominance, technological prowess and all the other indices of its brilliance. It is this neoliberal formula Gates suggests descendants of the African elites of the continent and America would do well to learn from and repeat.

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