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Frederick Douglass And The Burden Of Freedom: Breaking Through The Mental Prison Of Identity Politics

I have a dream that people with different political opinions will be able to share their ideas together openly, honestly, and amicably — in pursuit of the common good. I have a dream that we will focus all of our energies on crafting effective policy instead of endlessly indulging our own identities. I have a dream that we will contend with the problems of the world like mature adults, instead of fighting amongst ourselves like depraved children. But these dreams will never be realized until we learn to embrace freedom itself, our native power to carry our dreams into reality.

The man best known for having a dream, for looking over the mountaintops and seeing the valley of the promised land below — struggling with the entirety of his being to free his people from the chains of state sanctioned persecution — would likely be seen as an Uncle Tom figure today by the Academic Left. A man who embraced middle class liberal values, encouraged Blacks to become part of the mainstream, maintained a belief in the good faith of America, and God forbid upheld a religious orientation (pun intended) — would fit snugly into the modern caricature of white supremacy. Martin Luther King would undoubtedly be deemed an oppressor or a charlatan in the identity politics arena if he were speaking his mind today.

Identity Politics, an offspring of 1970s academic feminism and postmodernism, is predicated on the belief that reality is a vast power game between opposing groups, whether they be racial, sexual, cultural, or otherwise. According to this logic, the personal is inseparable from the political, and the world must reflect our inner sense of identity. Perhaps there is something to this, as the gap between our private and public selves is the source of much suffering in the world, but identity politics falls astray when it can no longer distinguish the private from the public. As to say, how one feels on the inside does not necessarily correspond to effective policy making on the outside. Moreover, this ideology fails to acknowledge that one’s particular group identity only encompasses a relatively small portion of our total personality. In other words, being part of a group (Black, Jewish, Female, etc.) does not save us the trouble of being ourselves, no matter how deeply we wish want to wrap our heads in the warm blanket of group ideology and taste the mouth watering piquancy of innocence by identification.

The rhetoric of cultural Leftism will never be able to achieve Martin’s worthy dream of achieving integration, peace, and equality (of opportunity, under the law), because these group identity movements are unable to see the most obvious thing: The individual is free. The western world is not a racist oppressive patriarchy. White supremacy is no longer a credible institution in the United States. We live in an open society. Discrimination based on group identity is the exception, not the rule. Racism (for instance) is interpersonal, it is not systemic. In essence, the Postmodern Left seems pathologically blind to the truth of human freedom and the sanctity of individual experience.

In reading “The Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass”, a personal memoir documenting the former slave’s escape to freedom, I am utterly amazed by its cultural relevance today. Kanye wasn’t totally wrong when he said that many blacks are mentally enslaved by the welfare system and mainstream media, a power structure that rewards failure and reinforces a victim identity. Frederick Douglass’ brave and unlikely journey to freedom is both a testament to the dehumanizing psychological mechanisms of slavery as well as an anecdote of how to develop a discipline of freedom and breach spiritual maturity — even in the most oppressive of circumstances.

Douglass describes a holiday ritual where slave masters would encourage slaves to indulge in food and alcohol, presumably a sweet reprieve from the overworked scarcity of slave living, though only in an attempt to disgust them with prospect of freedom and negatively reinforce their own autonomy by coercing them to over drink and eat to the point of sickness and depravity. “We felt, and very properly too, that we might almost as well be slaves to man as to rum”. This, coupled with a separation from one’s family origins and sense of one’s history (Frederick’s father was presumably white, likely his own master, and his mother was sent away at his birth — never being granted the knowledge of his actual age) to “hinder the development of the child’s affection towards its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child”, and deterring the slave’s desire to read and learn because “If you teach that n*gger (speaking of myself) to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave”. This works on the psychology of the slave to reinforce the veracity of his own enslavement as a force of nature, the will of the Gods.

I can’t help but draw a comparison between the structured infantilization of human beings by the Slave Trade, to the function of the modern welfare system in inner city neighborhoods — which require that fathers be absent and that fiscal efforts be omitted in order to receive the dole, coinciding with the mainstream endorsement of the cultural malaise in language (seeing broken english as cultural prowess — see John McWhorter’s “Talking Back, Talking Black”) and behavior (claiming the root of violence is police brutality — see Heather Mac Donald’s The War On Cops) that is prevalent among Black Americans. (For the record, I am not making the claim that Black Americans are “enslaved” by the democratic party in some grand conspiratorial narrative, nor am I questioning the effects of severe inequality. I actually believe we need a welfare system, just one that’s incentivized towards economic development and that rewards individual efforts.)

Douglass came to realize that his only path to freedom lay in becoming his own master and learning how to read, in spite of the slave owner’s efforts to annihilate his worldly ambition. “It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

The realities of historical oppression can’t be denied, a fact that is grimly advertised by the forgotten cities spread across the States, but neither can the potential for upward mobility that can be achieved through individual initiative. Although many liberal policies that have been employed in these areas are generally well-intended (very generally), the lack of faith in the ability of Blacks to utilize the resources allocated to them is particularly disturbing (Many of these cities are almost solely controlled by democrats — possessing an upward estimate of 90% of the Black vote). Whether we are discussing welfare policy or affirmative action, the implicit assumption is that Blacks are complacent victims in perpetual need of assistance who can’t possibly be expected to compete on their own merits — and this image is packaged by a conglomerate of black leaders to justify the necessity for these erroneous policies (In what Shelby Steele would call “White Guilt policies”). I wonder what someone like Michael Eric Dyson would say to their children when they fail a test or are being bullied at school (It’s unlikely that he would exclaim something to the effect of “It’s okay, you are just a victim”- as he so ‘eloquently’ professes to the rest of the Black community).

In his lauded and controversial work, “White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era”, Shelby Steele outlines the hypocrisy embedded in the dynamic between the liberal establishment and the Black community, contextualized by Ralph Ellison’s classic novel “Invisible Man” : “Bledsoe — like such contemporary black leaders leaders as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the entire civil rights establishment — essentially sells a ‘Sambo’ image of his own people, an image of black weakness and inferiority offered in trade to blind whites looking to buy an easy moral authority. This points to a sad irony in black/white relations in America. The price blacks pay for the mere illusion of recompense for past injustice always requires them — literally as well as metaphorically — to be ‘Sambo-ized’, to be merchandised to whites as inferiors and victims.”

This begs the question, why is the liberal establishment unable to recognize the absolute necessity of embracing our capacity for personal responsibility and free choice, even when these precepts are essential to improving the lives of the oppressed (the economically crippled and socially neglected segments of our population)?

Shelby Steele makes the argument this is a consequence of the white need for moral authority, a collective and individual pursuit of “dissociation” from the injustices of the past and a reclaiming of the feeling of innocence. That may very well be the case. Personally, I feel that many on the Left are paralyzed by the guilt that accompanies their own degree of socio-economic privilege (In the Hidden Tribes Study, the highest income demographic held the most left-leaning political beliefs and were by and large the most in favor of political correctness), explaining the need to reclaim a sense of innocence, while never really having to embody the personal freedom necessary to meet our latent potential. If you are born into privilege, the underlying values that create wealth and develop character are often taken for granted — or are simply never utilized at all. When the qualities of forward movement and individual initiative are a given, something to be expected, light need not be shed on the existential necessity of individual freedom and personal autonomy. Such qualities are either written off as common knowledge or denounced as one of those “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitudes that deny the harsh realities of inequality (Imagine a college student in a quaint coffee shop evoking the image of Black poverty to sail the point home of how you need to check your privilege.. Eesh) — neither of which require any further investigation. To add, the concept of personality responsibility itself goes against the predominant collectivist narrative of systemic oppression, which may also explain why individual initiative is so readily scoffed at. As many modern liberals criticize “biological determinism” regarding issues of gender and sex (which may very well be a simple acknowledgement that biology is a real thing), this type seems to have no problem expounding a sort of sociological determinism, where the broader power structure of our society determines who you are and where you stand with little wiggle room for determinations of our own.

Freedom is brutal, a copious burden that calls upon you and you alone to bare the responsibility of your own life. Human beings don’t necessarily like freedom, because it challenges our most deeply held assumptions and scorches our ego like a blazing inferno — showing us exactly where we are weak and letting us know what the hell is wrong with us. If we are totally free, than we must be totally responsible, and that is quite often too much for a person to bare in everyday life. Yet, when confronting a challenging circumstance or enduring a severe condition in our lives, it becomes absolutely necessary to confront ourselves in the very depths of our being in order to uncover the resolve and ingenuity to effectively move forward in the world. Frederick Douglass is a prime example, both personally and metaphorically.

Douglass elucidates the overwhelming burden of freedom, which is perhaps inseparable from the knowledge of one’s own enslavement, after teaching himself to read mostly from younger white boys on the streets of Baltimore while remaining in the outward condition of slavery. “As a writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. Anything, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom had now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in everything.”

The first act of his defiance came when resisting a whipping from another particularly crafty and sadistic landowner who Frederick was sold to work out the year for, in what was admittedly the first time he had ever had the courage to use physical violence against a master. “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free.. I felt as I had never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.”

Although I don’t condone physical violence (except when it comes to my obsession with Mixed Martial Arts), the spiritual charge that comes with forthrightly saying “No” to any force that is actively denying your humanity, whether inward or outward (either an inner self-doubt or a genuinely corrupt authority), and actually meaning it too, is completely denied to us in our culture — unless, of course, it is achieved by holding a placard and screaming to high heavens at your superiors. Perhaps the craving for such a feeling explains why activists will go above and beyond to “resist” anything that looks mildly unfair. True “resistance”, asserting the reality of one’s deeper humanity through individual action, to overcome all that which denies the Self, is the cutting edge of free will. I would regard this act of defiance as a way of earning our innocence, reclaiming an honest sense of moral power, as opposed to proclaiming our innocence by identifying with an oppressed group, laying claim to an unearned moral authority over others.

On a personal note, after having lived with a severe chronic illness for nearly 7 years while I am only 24 years of age, the capacity to say “No”, to resist my own temptation to identify as a victim while taking responsibility for everything in my world, even the things that I have limited control over, has drastically changed the quality of my life for the better. I could never fully explain how or why, that is left in the intimate chambers of my private Self (for now). I never thought I would feel any power again, after relapsing on my illness and falling into a deeper state of physiological despair, but I am here — going about the strange business of living. With hardly an ounce of self-pity. A pat on my back, for good measure.

Having a victim identity is a form of self-induced mental slavery. True freedom can be as much a psychological condition as it can be an actual physical imprisonment, demanding a resistance to the victim-focused ego entity in order to avoid this human tendency to, “rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not” as Frederick Douglass so wisely observed.

Choose to fly.