Social & Political Philosophy 15 – Fanon & The Wretched of the Earth
For this lecture, read Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, pg 35-53.
Colonialism & Postcolonialism
Before Europe rose and dominated the world by the mid-1700s, China and Islam were vast empires that developed technology, science, law and culture. Islam was in fact the last great contiguous land empire, stretching from Spain to China. Ironically, Chinese achievements such as ships, gunpowder and magnetic compasses, developed further by Muslims with algebra employed in such fields as cartography (mapping the world), enabled Europe to sail to Africa and the Americas, and to set up colonial empires that could be controlled in spite of separation by great distances. America became the largest slave colony in all of history, and just as Britain ruled the sea less than a century ago America now rules the skies as well as corporate economics. We can now dominate independent others. Chomsky and Zinn are two critics of American empire and its brutality, as well as the fact that “the West” is still hailed as the authoritative voice, the voice of authority and objectivity above and beyond all other cultures.
Islamic civilization was the world’s largest civilization before European civilization rose, so it is the natural place to look for the progression and development of philosophy, technology, and culture before Europe, and it gave Europe an astonishing amount of culture, technology and science. In spite of this, most scholars remain entirely ignorant of Islamic achievements as we rarely look outside of ancient Greek or Roman history to find influences on modern society. There is a greater appreciation of India and China in American scholarship, one that does not acknowledge equality with Europe but which acknowledges some depth. Here are some awesome Ahadith, sayings of the prophet Mohammad, the second source of Islam after the Koran:
Go in quest of knowledge, even unto China.
It is better to teach knowledge one hour in the night than to pray straight through it.
A moment’s reflection is better than 60 years devotion.
The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyrs.
Law and protections for a diverse population were developed the most in Islam before Europe rose and took over. A woman had the right to sue her husband for divorce, and use algebra to get a percentage of his income. Nestorians and Jews fled to Islamic lands from European persecutions. Islam thus thrived as a multicultural and ‘cosmopolitan’ society. It would be centuries before Europe passed them.
1492 is a good example: it is the year that the Christian Kings of Spain and Portugal retook those lands from Muslims, and the start of the Spanish Inquisition that brutally attacked Jews, Muslims and non-Catholic Christians. Thus there is no reason to celebrate the rationality or freedom of the West over and above the rest of human history. Postcolonialism is a movement in scholarship that argues the effects of colonialism persist in spite of decolonization. As Fanon and Said argue, the West and the white is privileged and pronounced the true humanity which knows itself while all others are marginalized and denounced as savage and ignorant.
Franz Fanon (1925 – 1961) was a philosopher, existentialist, Freudian and Marxist who began his career in psychiatry and became a revolutionary whose writings are one of the central sources of the Postcolonial school of thought along with Edward Said. Fanon’s two most famous works are the Wretched of the Earth (or Damned of the Earth, as an alternative translation of the French title) and Black Skin, White Masks. His writings have been an inspiration to many anti-racist and anti-establishment groups including the Black Panthers.
Fanon was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, a French colony as it remains today similar to US control of Puerto Rico. Though middle class, he witnessed the racist brutality of the French military toward the African population who were descended from slaves brought by the French to Martinique to work on plantations, as Africans had been brought to Haiti by the French and to Jamaica by the British. Nevertheless, Fanon joined the French military fighting Germany and Italy in Algeria. When Germany was defeated, the white soldiers were featured in parades while the black soldiers were removed from sight.
Fanon went to France and studied psychology and medicine, becoming a doctor and psychiatrist. He also studied philosophy, and attended lectures by the Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, former student of Husserl like Heidegger and close friend of Sartre, who argued that phenomenology and existentialism must be put in the context of the human body and physical experience like Freud and later Korzybski and Piaget.
In 1952, Fanon wrote Black Skin, White Masks as an expansion of his doctoral thesis, arguing that colonialism had a destructive impact on the physical and mental health of black people. Soon after writing the book he moved to Algeria to practice psychiatry, soon becoming the head of service for a major psychiatric hospital. Fanon began experimenting with therapy that took cultural background of Arabic and black patients and the effects of racism into account. When the Algerian Revolution against the French broke out (well portrayed in the famous French film The Battle of Algiers), he sided with and secretly supported the revolutionaries as a member of the Algerian Liberation Front, providing them with medical treatment and supplies. Fanon encouraged and trained interns and nurses to support the cause, and in 1957 Fanon was deported from Algeria and the hospital dismantled.
Fanon became a member of the close existentialist circle of the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in France who followed the work of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and Sartre would later write the preface and lend his fame to The Wretched of the Earth, writing famously that it was not a book for white people but white people should have the courage to read to come to a greater understanding of what is at stake for the oppressed in a world dominated by ignorance and racism. In The Wretched of the Earth, which was published only in 1961 just before his death, Fanon argued that colonialism had taught black people to interiorize racism such that they considered themselves evil and ugly and become self-destructive and violent against their fellow black people. Fanon, in accord with the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre, argued that racism is a form of lying to oneself to avoid the endless transformation of our existence and the questioning gaze of the other. The black body and mind is denigrated to affirm and celebrate the West, white culture and achievements including colonial control of the globe.
While Marx argues that class is the central struggle, the rich oppressing the poor and the poor rising up in revolution, Fanon argues that racial inequality is the key to class oppression. Rather than merely “celebrate diversity”, all the while supporting the idea that Western culture is rational and other cultures are less rational, we must accept not only the rationality of all people but our own irrationality as human beings. Thus, we accept the rationality and irrationality of white, black and all people, getting beyond the Manichean categorical dualistic thinking that separates both black from white and rational from irrational.
However, going beyond the simple universal humanism of Sartre, Fanon argued that black culture asserting itself as an “other” to white culture is valuable in the struggle, so we should celebrate black culture as an independent and separate voice while celebrating human equality and unity. Rather than impose capitalism or communism, we should allow economies and nations to develop individually and see what works for each local group. Gramsci argued for the same in the wake of Stalin while imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime. Through continuous bottom-up transformation of society (much like Trotsky had wanted for Soviet Russia), we can understand and enable the individual, the various cultures, and the whole.
Fanon argued that in some cases, such as the American Revolution, the Algerian Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution, violence can be an appropriate means for resistance to oppression and brutality. Fanon remained a revolutionary for the rest of his life, writing on tactics and support structures to aid African rebels and third world people attempting to gain independence from European colonial powers. For this, there were numerous assassination attempts made on his life. It is rumored that the CIA prevented Fanon from receiving treatment for leukemia just before his death in America. In 1965, four years after Fanon’s death, Time Magazine wrote that he was “an apostle of violence” and “a prisoner of hate” after the assassination of Malcolm X. Fanon likely would have replied, “You and I both, Time Magazine”.
Edward Said (1935 – 2003), one of the central sources of Postcolonialism like Fanon, was a Palestinian American and professor at Columbia University who grew up Palestinian Christian during the founding of Israel and the wars that followed. Like Chomsky, he first got tenure in another subject (Comparative Literature) before he became a famous cultural critic and hip within left leaning academia like Marcuse and Foucault. He is most famous for his book Orientalism (1978), which argues that “the Occident” an old term that has been replaced since the 1950s by “the West”, views “the Orient” as other through a Manichean lens much like Fanon describes that Said labels “Orientalism”.
European people, including European scholars, identify reason and freedom with the West, as Western virtues, while marginalizing other large cultural groups such as African, Chinese, Indian and Islamic as ignorant, authoritarian, emotional, and unselfconscious. Said is particularly focused on Eurocentric prejudice against Islamic cultures and populations, criticizing the romantic portrayal of the wonders of the East by Renaissance painters as well as modern day scholarship. The East, the Orient, is presented as an alien place full of wondrous splendor but also authoritarian despots and pre-scientific irrationality.
Today, we see much of the same in pundits labeling Muslims as a violent and unreasonable people. George W. Bush saying “They hate our freedom” rather than looking to economic oppression originally structured through colonialism and still alive in spite of decolonization is a perfect example. Rather than understand September 11th as a result of colonialism, it is presented as a “clash of civilizations” between the reasonable and free West and the ignorant and authoritarian Islamic Middle East. Asia and China, as Russia was, is seen in a similar light. Russia was the East, vs. America and Britain as the West openly in the rhetoric.
My professor Ken Jowitt, a specialist in Eastern Europe during and after the fall of the Soviet Union, told a full auditorium, his political science classroom, that after the fall of the Soviet Union America needed a new enemy, and that it was either going to be Islamic terrorism or communist China. This was less than a year before September 11th. He had argued this since 1990 in a piece included in his book, New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction, published in Berkeley. This was 10 years before September 11th, and we are still involved in multiple wars in the Middle East 10 years after.
You can watch Said speak on YouTube:
What can we do about racism? While few of us may be capable of rearranging the features of global politics, we can each take steps in our own lives to understand, identify and think beyond racist categorizations of human individuals. The interactions we have with others create categories and frames in our heads that mislead us into thinking that certain types of people are smart or unkind and mislead us into treating them as separate types of people.
Neuroscientists have shown that within milliseconds we identify others by ethnicity, gender and age, before we have a chance to think or speak. This can negatively frame our thinking, communication, and interactions. We naturally show frustration and negative emotions when we consider someone a threat, and this reinforces these reactions in ourselves and in others, including children, whether or not we’re aware of it. Psychologists have shown that we are all somewhat racist, the privileged and disadvantaged, some of us more so, and some less so. We are all imprinted with negative attitudes towards others who share our common culture, even if we actively ignore it in ourselves or live where racism is far more covert than overt, more thought to oneself than spoken out loud.
In our diverse society, it is mentally and physically healthier to talk about our problems rather than ignore them and to discourage the idea that we are on opposing teams. When we focus on not making mistakes, this has a negative impact on our thinking and the perceptions of others, but when we focus on having a positive and open interaction, this is good for thinking and communication. Positivity helps us see each other as individuals and not as categories. Understanding that our thinking and personalities are not fixed, but can be enriched and developed, helps us to identify with each other and thrive.
Confucius said that if you put yourself with any two people at random, you can take their strengths as a model to follow and their faults as a warning. This is wise advice, as we all share similar strengths and faults. Intelligence and compassion are human virtues. Ignorance and brutality are human problems. We can see these are valued and useful yet difficult to develop in all human cultures, ancient and modern. Just as genetics shows we are actually one race with a variety of interrelated ethnicities, we share one culture with many cross-pollinating branches of subculture. We can draw on excellent and terrible examples from all of humanity to become better people. While this may seem obvious, it is easily forgotten.