Obama, Jefferson, slaves, murder, Nobel Prizes · 12 December 2012

Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times (America’s drone war is out of control, December 10, 2012) wrote that the use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists has become a trademark of the Obama administration. This often involves killing somebody whose name you don’t even know because his pattern of behaviour suggests to you that he is a terrorist.

Yet while Guantnamo attracted worldwide condemnation, the use of drones is much less discussed. It is hard to avoid the impression that Barack Obama is forgiven for a remarkably ruthless antiterrorism policy simply because his public image is so positive. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for goodness sake!

America argues that even signature strikes are precisely targeted and that civilian casualties are minimal. But that is disputed. A recent study by Stanford and New York University law schools endorsed the claim that between 474 and 881 civilians, including almost 200 children, have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. One case in which a meeting of tribal elders called to discuss a mining dispute was hit, killing 42 people is now the subject of legal action in Pakistan and Britain. (The British are accused of providing intelligence to the US.)

Paul Finkelman (New York Times, November 30, 2012, article headed The Monster of Monticello) wrote that when looking at the life of Thomas Jefferson, we seem unable to reconcile the rhetoric of liberty in his writing with the reality of his slave owning and his lifetime support for slavery. Time and again, we play down the latter in favor of the former, or write off the paradox as somehow indicative of his complex depths.

The reality is simpler! Obama does not have complex depths, and I suspect that neither did Jefferson. For both Obama and Jefferson, words have the most meaning if they sound good to other people and the words suit their own purposes. Yet, they get away with so much cruelty because in Gideon Rachman’s words their public image is so positive.

This raises several possible questions:
(1) Would Jefferson have received the Nobel Prize if it had existed in his day;
(2) Would Barack Obama have been a slave owner if he had been a white man in the same era as Jefferson?

While highly intelligent, Obama lacks real empathy and an interest in the feelings that drive the behavior and personalities of human beings.

Jodi Kantor wrote (New York Times, Obama Now a Chance to Catch Up to His Epochal Vision, November 7, 2012) that from the first time Barack Obama summoned the country’s leading presidential historians to dinner, they saw that. though Mr. Obama knew many of his predecessors stories cold, he was no history buff: he showed little curiosity about their personalities and almost no interest in the founding fathers. His goal, the historians realized, was more strategic. He wanted to apply the lessons of past presidential triumphs and failures to his own urgent project of setting the country on a new path.

Obama is only interested in his good intellectual aims almost like a Lenin!

And, when it comes to Obama’s consideration of human beings outside his US-centric in-group, this may help:

In 1950, Gustave Gilbert, the US prison psychologist at the Nuremberg Trials wrote that white, American-born Protestants can patriotically defend the humane American way in defiance of dictatorship, while feeling no concern over the mistreatment of racial minorities at their own back door. Many Germans and many Americans, when confronted with these inconsistencies in their professed behavior as decent citizens, recognise the inconsistency intellectually, but still find it difficult to modify their behavior. Insight is not sufficient to overcome the deeply rooted social conditioning of feelings. … As a general principle . the normal social process of group identification and hostility-reaction brings about a selective constriction of empathy, which, in addition to the semi-conscious suppression of insight, enables normal people to condone or participate in the most sadistic social aggression without feeling it or realising it.

Obama, if he had lived in the time of Jefferson, would not have been uncomfortable as a — at least honoury — white, American-born Protestant with a few slaves.

And finally, more on Jefferson!

According to Finkelman:

Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.

There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition. But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.

Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.

Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks outlaws in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

Jefferson also dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote racial equality. As a state legislator he blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state. As president he acquired the Louisiana Territory but did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into that vast empire of liberty. Jefferson told his neighbor Edward Coles not to emancipate his own slaves, because free blacks were pests in society who were as incapable as children of taking care of themselves. And while he wrote a friend that he sold slaves only as punishment or to unite families, he sold at least 85 humans in a 10-year period to raise cash to buy wine, art and other luxury goods.

Destroying families didn’t bother Jefferson, because he believed blacks lacked basic human emotions. Their griefs are transient, he wrote, and their love lacked a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Jefferson claimed he had never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture or poetry among blacks and argued that blacks ability to reason was much inferior to whites, while in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. He conceded that blacks were brave, but this was because of a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.

A scientist, Jefferson nevertheless speculated that blackness might come from the color of the blood and concluded that blacks were inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.

Jefferson did worry about the future of slavery, but not out of moral qualms. After reading about the slave revolts in Haiti, Jefferson wrote to a friend that if something is not done and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children. But he never said what that something should be.

In 1820 Jefferson was shocked by the heated arguments over slavery during the debate over the Missouri Compromise. He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to perpetrate an act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.