Sunday, October 2, 2011

SHOW ME THE PHILOSOPHY



E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Mention Western philosophy to someone who is a Black Nationalist and they will swear the Europeans stole everything (except the price tag) from the Egyptians or people of a darker hue. What is your position on this?  Does this really matter in 2011?"


At times one is hesitant to dignify outrageous, overly-generalized statements of this sort by responding to them. I recall a well-known black writer, a self-proclaimed Afrocentric satirist whom I will not name, casually saying to me at my home during a visit in the 1980s that, "The Buddha was black." However, he offered not a shred of evidence to support his claim. He didn't even offer an argument. Or a single, intriguing, contestable "fact" from the historical record worthy of chewing on or serving as the basis for an intelligent (or even unintelligent) conversation. And, obviously, the brainless notion he floated (perhaps just to see what my reaction would be) has nothing whatsoever to do with the theory and practice of the Buddhadharma. As for the oft-stated claim in some in-bred black nationalist circles that the Greeks "stole" their various philosophies from the Egyptians, that too at the present time is a delicious piece of sophistry insofar as we are talking about a world so distant in antiquity that conclusive evidence to back this idea is just about impossible to find.

 My position on this is easy to state: I do not suffer fools gladly. And I never take seriously statements by anyone---black or white, male or female, young or old, on the left or the right, from the East or the West---who isn't prepared to support their claim(s) with logical argumentation and evidence that is apodictic. (I wouldn't even listen to my beloved parents when on matters of fact they were clearly wrong, as on occasion they proved to be during my childhood and teens.) Generally, my default position on claims made about the world is---like that of, say, any good journalist---a healthy skepticism, which is the attitude that any scholar worthy of the name would also assume, especially since all our knowledge is provisional and always subject to revision based on new evidence. 

 However, I'm also very sensitive (perhaps hyper-sensitive) to the pain and suffering that are the foundations behind many statements that people make on the subject of "race." We must remember that black American history until quite recently was marginalized, often deliberately erased from history books and the popular imagination. Put simply, during the era of segregation whites suppressed our stories and countless truths about the American (and Western) experience that involved people of color. Nearly every week we learn something new---and exciting---about the roles played by people of African descent in the Western world. But while such information is both enlightening and emotionally satisfying, we must always be cautious about embracing statements simply because we want them to be true---for example, the long repeated but now qualified statement that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost an aircraft (not one) when they were deployed as bomber escorts in Europe. (They flew hundreds of escort missions, and lost a mere 25, which is still impressive.) I'm willing to admit that over the last 63 years, I've sometimes slipped and embraced an idea on flimsy evidence (or testimonials), but I generally try to rigorously question everything I think is true. (And this human tendency to err is, of course, why we often see retractions for news stories a day after they are published.)

 On November 8, 2003, I attended a lecture by the distinguished historian Ira Berlin entitled "American Slavery in History and Memory and the Search for Social Justice." Dr. Berlin  judiciously distinguished between the generally dispassionate and skeptical approach of the historian of slavery, who necessarily assumes that “everyone lied” until their claims can be verified, and the approach of the American (especially black American) public which does the opposite: it focuses on the victims of slavery, whose history emerges from personal and received experience---stories told and retold by one’s family and predecessors. 


“For memory,” said Dr. Berlin, “unlike history, rejects a skeptical, detached reconstruction of the past.  For the keepers of memory, it is unquestioned and reflexive, absolute, and instantaneous; not distant from the present but conjoined with today and contiguous with tomorrow.  Memory speaks, not to a desire to understand the whole and to include all in the story, but the personal, individual understandings based on the most intimate experiences in families, churches, and communities.  It is conveyed through symbols and rituals and knowing gestures, through often-repeated stories passed from grandparents who were too often ignored but never forgotten, and through kitchen table banter that was barely audible but always heard...Memories are anything but tentative, distant, contingent, or dispassionate. They are immediate, intense, and emotive.  They do not evoke skepticism but command commitment; they demand loyalty, not controversy.  Memories are not debated (except in the most trivial sense), they are embraced.  If history is written with the presumption that everyone lied, memory presumes the truth.  No one lied.”


 Always the difficult burden of proof is on whoever makes a claim about the world. (If you claim that neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light, which would overturn contemporary physics and prove Einstein wrong, then you must test and retest your findings, then have others test them, too.) We all have a right to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. (Which for example, the Bush Administration failed to provide for its repeated assertions that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction.) We are right, I believe, to assume that "everybody lied" until we are given evidence that proves otherwise. If such evidence emerges that European philosophers "stole" everything from "people of a darker hue," or that the Buddha was black, believe me, I will be among the first people to admit I was wrong, shout these disclosures from the rooftops, write reams about it, feel a brief twinge of egoistic racial pride (which as a Buddhist I'll endeavor to eliminate because we are all human beings and the feeling of "superiority" is often identified as one of the last obstacles toward spiritual awakening and liberation), and work diligently to broadcast such new information. But until such proof is placed on the table, I feel a healthy skepticism is the most responsible position to take.

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