The Dialectic of American Identity

Photo by Jose M. on Unsplash

This essay is also available as a podcast on anchor.fm and other platforms, and as a video on YouTube.

I want to open the show today by talking about someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’m not going to name him because I don’t want to call him out in a way that he might not be okay with, but he’s a fellow artist and performer whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with on two projects, as well as someone I know as a friend in a somewhat secondary capacity via my partner, who is a closer friend to him. I wrote an essay a bit back called “On the Matter of Becoming a Fucking God: Satanism and the Philosophy of Theater,” and this was about a theater performance that he and I worked in together. My responsibility with regards to that show was basically just to show up and play the drums awesomely. Which I did. But he was not only performing a physically challenging role, but seeing to a thousand other myriad things including — and I’m serious about this — making sure the theater didn’t catch fire. And all of this while he was also directing another show in another city. I’ve always enjoyed his company and he’s been a good friend to my partner, and anyone whom my partner considers to be a good friend, I think of as almost family, because I love my partner very much and I suppose I have a natural affinity for people who appreciate my partner the way that I do.

This person I’m talking about is a Black person and recently I saw a video of him reading a poem he wrote at a protest. I’m not going to quote it directly because, as I said, I don’t want to call him out, and I would have to do that in order to give the quote a proper citation. But my understanding of it was his expression of seeing himself reflected in the eyes of white¹ America, and, through that lens, seeing himself as a monster. Someone dangerous, someone to be feared. This amazing performer, this gentle and kind and loving person, sees himself in white eyes… eyes like mine… as a monster. What does society do with what it perceives to be its monsters? Well, that’s what we see on the news, that’s why we’re in the streets, and that’s why this person — just as much a citizen as myself — does not feel safe in his home country.

This is someone for whom I have an immense amount of respect as a fellow human being. He’s creative, productive, hard-working, compassionate, and he shows up as fully and as authentically to the world as any of us could ever aspire to. So what does it mean that I went to war for a country where this kind of person — a fellow American citizen and one among those whose rights I literally swore to defend with my life — does not feel safe? Does not feel free? And obviously it’s not just him. Obviously it’s a very large number of Americans who participate in America and contribute to its greatness on absolutely every level but who don’t have access to the guarantees that this participation was supposed to afford them.

I find it absolutely intolerable that the country I fought for isn’t safe for the people I care about and that the freedoms I enjoy and which I ostensibly fought for are not enjoyed by all Americans. The people I was fighting had never done anything to threaten my friend’s freedom. American propaganda shows the threats to our freedoms and our way of life dressed in thawb and keffiyeh, while those whom we should have been worried about wear a blue uniform and a badge declaring them agents of the state. There are a great many problems when it comes to the relationship between my service in the U.S. Army and the actual stated ideals of the nation that I served, but this one is a particularly egregious betrayal of those ideals, one which long predates my service and which I feel foolish for not having been aware of when I signed my contract and swore my oath. But it’s happened often in my life that something lands in my path and makes me aware of my own ignorance regarding issues that I thought I understood. This has happened a few times regarding my opinions on issues surrounding race, and I’m sure it will happen again. Sometimes it’s painful to realize how mistaken — perhaps even naive and foolish — I’ve been, but I hope that this happens to me as often as possible regardless.

I’m a middle-class white person who was raised by middle-class white people in a predominantly white and middle-class area of the country. Both of my parents went out of their way to make sure I understood that, despite some popular disagreements on the matter, I was no better than anyone else because of my skin color. And that made perfect sense to me. Our next door neighbors were immigrants from Korea and their son, an immigrant and a person of color who spoke English as his second language, was my first real friend. I was raised on a steady diet of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, both of which took clear antiracist stances. But despite all this, by the time I got to high school, though I would still repudiate racism, I carried with me some distinctly racist ideas.

I went to high school in the mid-90’s in the same white, middle-class area that I mentioned before. Of the approximately 2000 students at my school, four were Black. This was the mid-90’s, and the music of choice for many of the students was gangsta rap. I listened primarily to metal music and considered my tastes elevated above those of the school’s hip-hop community. Certainly there are some problems with white people fetishizing Black culture in the way that many of my peers did, but without ever having taken the time to appreciate the genre’s background and nuances, and the various reasons why it is what it is, I wrote it off as brutish, unsophisticated, and disingenuous. That last point in particular came from my inability to comprehend the situation from which the artists had written their lyrics. Specifically, I believed that the life of a Black teenager growing up in Compton was essentially the same as my life as a white teenager growing up in a middle-class suburb of Denver, and given this belief, I had to assume that the presentation that the artists had created was just for show and did not represent their real lives and identities. I hope my ignorance in this matter will be judged keeping in mind that, during much of this time, not only was the internet still in its infancy, I didn’t even own a computer, but the point remains that, even with the best possible upbringing in my particular circumstances, I grew up fundamentally ignorant of the real nature of race relations in my country and possessed of some problematic views regarding the same. Clearly it’s not enough to understand that things are in a problematic state; it’s important to know exactly how things are problematic so that someone can understand why things are problematic and to make sure they’re not contributing to the problem and maybe even work towards correcting it.

People who might be new to the show might hear my tagline and wonder how what I’m covering here today is relevant to that. Okay, let’s say I come to you and say “Christian hegemony is a problem,” which is exactly what I’ve been doing with this project for the past year and a half. Whether you’re a Christian or a Muslim or a Satanist or an Atheist, if you’re listening to this show — and I know that people from all those groups do listen to this show and I’m glad to have all of you with me — you probably agree with that, but let’s say you come back and say, “Yeah, it’s a problem for me, but I’m not concerned about how that problem affects other people,” I’m going to say, “Okay, well, those things are related, and you can’t really address or even understand how it affects you without understanding how it affects others, and nor can you rectify its effects on you without addressing the broader problem.” Christian hegemony isn’t directed against you in particular, after all, so how can it be properly understood or addressed as if it were? Just as an example, and this is an argument for another time, but I think it’s possible that cultural hegemonies have deliberately leveraged racial resentment and the inherent Otherness of certain ethnic groups as a means to keep oppressed groups who might otherwise have common cause to unify against the hegemony weakened through internecine conflict. The more that white working class people are concerned about immigrants “stealing their jobs,” in other words, the less concerned they are about systemic labor exploitation in general. To be clear, I’m not making that argument here and I may be partially or completely wrong about that; I’m just bringing it up as one example of how race and class struggle might possibly be interrelated, and that’s going to relate to religion in turn when we consider Marx, who believed that religion is used by the elite to pacify the working class. Again, I’m not making an argument for those points right now, just demonstrating the relevance of this matter to the philosophy of religion.

Religious hegemony and racial hegemony are inextricable. They’re not the same thing, but they can’t be disentangled from one another to the point where you can say, “This thing is completely a matter of religious hegemony and has nothing to do with racial hegemony, and this other thing is completely a matter of racial hegemony and has nothing to do with religious hegemony.” And I’ll have more to say about the relevance of this whole thing to Satanism further on in the show.

The title of the episode today is “The Dialectic of American Identity.” In order to explore that, we have to start with the early 19th century German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. It’s impossible to sum up Hegel’s philosophy; his work was systemic, expansive, and highly enigmatic, covering every extant topic in philosophy during the time in which he lived, but in general, he was concerned with the historical evolution of the world and everything in it towards what he called Absolute Spirit via the process of the dialectic. I’ve talked about dialectics in my episode of the same title, and I’d recommend checking that out if you haven’t heard it already in order to get the full context, but to sum up, a dialectic is a process between contradictions that results in progress. Hegel’s predecessor Johann Gottlieb Fichte summarized this process as the triadic relationship between thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, but for Hegel the matter was less one of discrete categories and more one of continual flux. Hegel’s work Phenomenology of Spirit, from 1807, is an introduction to his system which aims to document the different forms of Spirit in its evolution towards the Absolute. One of the most famous ideas presented in the Phenomenology, and the one most relevant to our purposes here today, is the Dialectic of Lordship and Bondage, which refutes the atomistic conception of identity that Descartes presented in his Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641. “Self-consciousness,” Hegel says, “Exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (2013, §178). He explicates this a little further on:

Self-consciousness is, to begin with, simple being-for-self, self-equal through the exclusion from itself of everything else. For it, its essence and absolute object is ‘I’; and in this immediacy, or in this [mere] being, of its being-for-self, it is an individual. What is ‘other’ for it is an unessential, negatively characterized object. But the ‘other’ for it is also a self-consciousness; one individual is confronted by another individual. Appearing thus immediately on the scene, they are for one another like ordinary objects, independent shapes, individuals submerged in the being [or immediacy] of Life — for the object in its immediacy is here determined as Life. They are, for each other, shapes of consciousness which have not yet accomplished the movement of absolute abstraction… In other words, they have not as yet exposed themselves to each other in the form of pure being-for-self, or as self-consciousness. Each is indeed certain of its own self, but not of the other, and therefore its own self-certainty still has no truth. For it would have truth only if its own being-for-self had confronted it as an independent object, or, what is the same thing, if the object had presented itself as this pure self-certainty. But according to the Notion of recognition this is possible only when each is for the other what the other is for it, only when each in its own self through its own action, and again through the action of the other, achieves this pure abstraction of being-for-self.

2013, §186

Like I said, Hegel is enigmatic. I have a sense that, whenever I try to explain Hegel, I either oversimplify or I make things more confusing, but I’ll make an attempt: at first it seems apparent that nothing outside of myself is essential to my self-identity, and indeed, that nothing outside of myself is me at all. You could take away everything that I own and everything I know and drop me naked in a forest somewhere and, on the essential level, it seems that I would still be me. But when I talk about everything outside of myself, that includes other people, and when I say that other people are not essential to my self-identity, that includes their recognition of me as an individual, which is dependent on my recognizing them as individuals, so if I am myself, I must necessarily be recognized as such by those whom I myself recognize as individuals in their own right. To say that recognition of me by others is not actually of me at all is to engage in self-contradiction, and to be recognized by who or what I do not acknowledge as being capable of such recognition is meaningless.

As a more concrete example of this, let’s say that I believe that I am an employee at the local occult goods emporium. My believing that this is the case is dependent on my recognition as an employee by the other people whom I myself recognize as employees. If I show up to the store and the people whom I recognize as working there say “Who are you?” and I say “I work here,” and they say, “No you don’t,” I’d have a hard time arguing that I actually do. Even if I’ve convinced the person selling hot dogs at the food cart outside the shop, that’s not going to do it. Mutual recognition is required for me to actually be an employee.

This being a somewhat contrived example, it might be a little misleading. Hegel explores the details and implications of this process in great depth, as instabilities arise and create the dynamics of lordship and bondage for which this section of the Phenomenology is named. It’s not the case — and neither Hegel nor I are arguing — that who we are is wholly dependent on how others perceive us. What is important for our purposes here is this picture of identity not as something isolated and atomistic, as Descartes proposed, but as something which exists intersubjectively as a continual process — a dialectic — between individuals. Keep that in mind as we continue.

The next thing I want to look at is a speech made by the Black abolitionist, politician, and philosopher Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, on July 5th of 1852, to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. The speech is entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It’s available in full online and I highly suggest you read it (or listen to James Earl Jones read it if you follow the link), because Douglass is an absolute master of both the English language and of rhetoric, and this speech in particular is perhaps the most stirring and pointed indictment of American hypocrisy that has ever been written. One of the many fascinating things about this speech is that Douglass argues his position by refusing to argue his position. He declares not only that the wrongfulness of slavery is so self-evident that it would be beneath him to argue it, but that the laws and philosophical foundations of the nation already concede the point, making slavery a matter of particularly egregious hypocrisy. He says, for example, “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.” And this is indeed the case. As I’ve mentioned in prior essays, the philosopher John Locke was a major contributor to the philosophies of property and liberty upon which this nation was founded, and he argues exactly this point in his Second Treatise on Government (Locke & Laslett, 1988). And yet the constitution of the British colony of Carolina, which Locke had a hand in, explicitly endorses slavery and blatently contravenes this very argument (Armitage, 2004).

According to Professor Jonathan Holloway in his Open Yale Courses lecture series on African American history, Douglass was invited by the society, comprised of fellow abolitionists and friends, to give this speech on the day before, July 4th, so that he might talk about his relationship with the holiday as a former slave and one of the free Black people of the northern United States. He shows up not on that day but the day after and opens his speech by rebuking them, and quite forcefully at that. I’d love to quote more extensively from this speech but it’s not really my place to read it when you can listen to it read by James Earl Jones. But to make my point, I’ll quote him here, answering the question by which the speech is titled, saying, “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Considering Douglass’s words in the context of Hegel, I argue that understandings of American freedom and identity in general are incomplete without a commensurate understanding of Black American freedom and identity.

I want to be clear that I say this as someone whose understanding of Black American experience is… underdeveloped, if I’m being generous, especially relative to those who have been living it their entire lives. As I always do when new, unfamiliar situations arise, I’ve spent the last few weeks hitting the books and reviewing the extant literature, and I’ve learned a great deal even as I’ve been humbled by how much I have yet to learn. So, then, you might respond that it must be the case that my understanding of American freedom and identity are similarly underdeveloped. Well, I think I’ve had more opportunities than some to develop and come to appreciate what American freedom and identity mean, but in the particular capacity to which I am referring, yes, I think that is exactly the case. So I’m going to step carefully and try to ensure that I speak only about what I’m reasonably certain about at this stage.

Hegel’s dialectics concern all processes involving opposites or contradictions — which, for Hegel, included absolutely everything — and there is nothing that more strongly negates freedom as an American value or ideal than the institution of American slavery, which, when colonial history is properly included, existed in this nation since its earliest beginnings and throughout most of its history, until 1865. Those who say that “slavery is in the past” seem to always do so without understanding that the past is in the present. It would be absurd to think that a centuries-old institution of slavery would be rectified as of June 19th, 1865, when the Emancipation Proclamation was read to the final slaves in Texas. Indeed, white employers, legislators, and bureaucrats in the postbellum American south structured their laws so as to perpetuate the conditions of slavery (Hunter, 1997). It would be similarly absurd to believe that the subsequent century of injustice was fully corrected as of the end of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. The history of slavery and racial injustice in this country is a present, living reality. It always will be, for as long as we exist as a nation.

As Professor Holloway describes in the aforementioned lecture series, freedom in this country has historically been tied to citizenship, which has historically been tied to race. That was the case in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence declared the United States as a new nation founded on the principles of equality and universal rights — though those were understood by the authors of the document and the people whom it represented to apply only to white Protestant men. That was the case in the Supreme Court’s decision on Scott v. Sandford in 1857 — the Dred Scott case — in which it was determined that a slave could not be made a citizen on account of his race, with Chief Justice Taney’s opinion stating that Black people were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” (Douglass et al., 2009). That was the case in the New York City draft riots of 1863, in which Irish immigrants violently protested against Black citizenship on racial grounds. That was the case in the 2008 presidential election and throughout the subsequent administration of President Barack Obama, whose citizenship was directly questioned — absent any substantive evidence — on the basis of his race.

As I described in the prior episode on John Locke, freedom is a much more complicated matter than the one-dimensional spectrum of freedom (from “not free” to “free”) commonplace in American discourse would indicate. According to the paper “Negative and Positive Freedom” by the philosopher Gerald MacCallum, Jr. (1967), freedom must be understood not according to that one-dimensional spectrum nor even according to the popular conception of freedom as “freedom to” or “freedom from,” but rather as a collection of triadic relations between an agent, something that agent does or becomes, and “preventing conditions” that would restrict that doing or becoming. This triadic understanding of freedom clarifies the general discourse on American freedom and allows us to discuss them in a more specific way. For example: as a white American, I (the agent) am free to go about my daily business (the activity) without fear of brutal treatment or summary execution by the police (the preventing condition). This is not the case for all Americans. Thus, there is a freedom I possess as a white American which people of color do not possess.

My perception of my own American freedoms has been that they are conferred upon me by virtue of my citizenship, and while this is not an entirely inaccurate understanding, it is a superficial and incomplete one absent the context of how my citizenship relates to my ancestry. Such an incomplete understanding would imply that all Americans are equally citizens and that all citizens are equally free, which is evidently not the case. That there is a legal basis for a more inclusive citizenship is, unfortunately, irrelevant, as we’ve seen throughout the history of this country that such laws do not automatically confer the tangible benefits that they promise to all citizens.

So what to do with this?

My ultimate objective as a Satanist is to pursue my personal interests and to enhance my strength and power to the furthest possible degree so as to use that strength and power towards whatever ends most suit my interests. Mostly, my interests concern the pursuit of knowledge and learning, which I see as being valuable in themselves, and which in turn further enhance my power. To that end, I seek to effect a peaceable, inclusive society. My beliefs about this come primarily from an American philosopher named John Dewey, who, inspired by Hegel and Darwin, believed in taking an essentially scientific approach to society. Science is an empirical pursuit: it’s about what we can figure out using sense data rather than what we can just think our way to, so science needs empirical data in order to function. And what kind of empirical data do we need about how to structure society? Whom will such a thing affect? All the people who live in that society — or, to approach it from a more individualist perspective, all of the other people whom each of us must live in society with — so we need information about what it’s like to be a person from as many different perspectives as possible. Remember the definition of the dialectic that I offered earlier: a process between contradictions that results in progress. Perhaps there are other means as well by which progress can be achieved, but at the least, the contradictions and conflicts that arise in a pluralistic society are a means towards progress.

This is what will situate us within the dialectic of American identity. This is the environment in which our networks of mutual recognition are maximally complex, and only in such an environment can we realize our most complex and nuanced selves. This unending panoply of the shapes and forms of human spirit does nothing to diminish me. To the contrary, it reminds me of what I see when I look up at the night sky: something so expansive and myriad that I come to understand my own existence within that expanse as something truly wondrous. I want more light. I want every nuance of every spectrum of everything to shine in my face all at once, for the rest of my life and for all eternity.

We Satanists call Satan Lightbringer. I think that this is what it means to bring light to the world, to explore every possible way in which it is possible to be human, every possible way in which it is possible to be alive or to exist at all, and for each of us to celebrate ourselves to the world. My sexuality and my ethnicity and my culture and my religion only have meaning for me in light of the other possibilities, and so each new possibility contributes to that meaning. That is Satan’s legacy, after all, according to one narrative. We would have been no more than God’s pets in their toy garden if Satan hadn’t opened things up to the broader possibilities. I have only this one life to live for myself and as myself but the meaning of that life is all the more expansive if I just open myself up to the understanding of how many more ways there are that I could have been, and how everything that I am is structured by what are little more than matters of happenstance. What Satanist would want for something other than to see their thread as it is woven into the tapestry, so that they might have some say in the matter of how it is woven?

  1. You might have noticed that I capitalize “Black” but not “white”. That’s something I’ve been researching and I’ve decided on that usage as it most clearly conveys my intended meaning. This is in no way meant to convey any sort of hierarchy, but is rather intended to respect and preserve the ethnic identities of both groups. When I write “Black,” referring to a person or people, I’m describing an ethnic identity, that of Black Americans. When I write “white,” referring to a person or people, I’m referring to a skin color, one which is inclusive of several ethnic identities such as Italian-American, Irish-American, German-American, Northwestern European American, Russian-American, and Jewish-American, though this is not to say that all members of such ethnic groups are necessarily white. To refer to Italian-Americans, for example, as “White” (capital-W), would reduce their rich ethnic heritage to their skin color. Somewhat confoundingly, to refer to a Black person as “black” (lowercase-b) would do the same. When I need to describe a demographic that is not white but also not necessarily Black, I’ll use the term “people of color.”

I hope you’ve found this piece interesting and informative. If you’ve enjoyed it, I encourage you to look at some of my other essays, and if you find my approach to philosophy and religion at all valuable, I hope that you’ll stop in at my Patreon page, which features bonus content for patrons, and that you’ll stop back by to check on my new content.

Works Cited or Referenced

AFAM 162 — Lecture 1 — Dawn of Freedom | Open Yale Courses. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2020, from https://oyc.yale.edu/african-american-studies/afam-162/lecture-1
Armitage, D. (2004). John Locke, Carolina, and the Two Treatises of Government. Political Theory, 32(5), 602–627. https://doi.org/10.1177/0090591704267122
Douglass, F., Johnston, P., Scott, D., & Taney, R. B. (2009). “No Rights the White Man Is Bound to Respect:” The Dred Scott Case and Its Aftermath. In M. Marable & L. Mullings (Eds.), Let nobody turn us around: Voices of resistance, reform, and renewal: An African American anthology (2nd ed). Rowman & Littlefield.
Frederick Douglass. (2020). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Frederick_Douglass&oldid=962841143
Hegel, G. W. F., Miller, A. V., & Findlay, J. N. (2013). Phenomenology of spirit (Reprint.). Oxford Univ. Press.
Hunter, T. W. (1997). To ’joy my freedom: Southern Black women’s lives and labors after the Civil War. Harvard Univ. Press.
Locke, J., & Laslett, P. (1988). Two treatises of government (Student ed). Cambridge University Press.
MacCallum, G. C. (1967). Negative and Positive Freedom. The Philosophical Review, 76(3), 312. https://doi.org/10.2307/2183622
Marx, K. (1843). Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/

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