Ignorance is a (conditioned) state of mind By William Bowles

30 July 2003

Ignorance: Ig = in, nocere = not knowing. In a state of not knowing; a “United States of Not Knowing” (Thank you Patricia)

In an essay, ‘How hatred was born’ (sub-titled ‘Ignorance is not bliss’), in the Independent Review (29/07/03) the black American writer Walter Mosley, makes the comparison between the rage that black Americans feel towards a system, run by whites, that has oppressed and exploited them for generations, and the rage felt by people in the Middle East toward Americans (or does he mean America?).

But instead of seeing the connection between the rage that is shared by both black Americans and Arabs, Mosley speaks of seeing an effigy of Colin Powell, a black American, being burnt in Pakistan and he makes the comment that,

“They didn’t think of him as a black man.” He says that “This sort of international politics presents a deep quandary for black Americans.” “They hate me,” says Mosley.

But is this really true or is his response conditioned by his experience of living in America? I’d hazard a guess and say the people who burnt Colin Powell’s effigy don’t give a toss what colour he is, what is important is what Powell represents.

Mosley points out that ignorance of America’s history (and almost everywhere else I might add) is one of the key reasons why, not only are most white Americans racist, but also why Americans generally, adopt a racist view of ‘Arabs.’ But perhaps black rage against white racism also finds itself redirected toward Arabs as a defence against their own feelings of impotence and the lack of self worth that racism installs in both white and black which, I maintain, is in reality, a state of not knowing.

An ironic dilemma that speaks volumes about the way the dominant culture corrupts and the insidious nature of racism as an ideological construct which, when you boil it down, in actuality, relies not on ‘colour’ per se, but on a state of not knowing.

Why is it, that for Mosley, it presents him with a quandary? Is it because he’s torn between being a ‘black man’ and being an ‘American,’ or does he feel that they are two mutually exclusive concepts?

Unfortunately, Mosley doesn’t actually answer his own question because to attempt to address his quandary, he’d have to address the question firstly, of what it means to be black in the world at large, and secondly, as a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth which oppresses and exploits the vast majority of the world’s population, he has to make a decision about where his allegiance really lies.

In turn, this raises the fundamental question; does his allegiance lie with his ‘race,’ his country or with the poor and the oppressed, where you’d think his natural allegiance lies?

Instead, the title of his essay, ‘How hatred was born’ is answered by Mosley in the following way when he says, ” The hatred lived inside my father; it lives in the hearts of so many black people in the United States today.” But is this a satisfactory answer to a question that in fact, he is posing to the Arab world as much as to his own?

I also question Mosley’s assumptions about whether most black Americans are actually in a ‘quandary’ about whether or not most people in the poor world ‘hate them’ or that black Americans feel ‘torn’ over the issue. I’d also hazard a guess that proportionately, many more black Americans than whites are opposed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq precisely because they are exploited in their own country, even though their dilemma is compounded by the fact that a disproportionate number of poor black, latino (and white) Americans are doing the fighting (and dying) for Bush’s imperialism.

Solidarity is a state of mind

Solidarity is not an especially fashionable word these days, either in America or in the UK. The current situation contrasts sharply with that of the 1960s, when the civil rights movement in the US consciously made a connection with the struggles of oppressed people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In fact one can argue that the liberation struggles, especially in Africa were a source of inspiration for the civil rights movement. They quite correctly drew parallels between racism and exploitation at home and in the Third World, as it was known then.

One must ask the question why is there no comparable movement today to that of the anti-war movement that developed around the Vietnam War? What is different about today’s America?

In part, it’s the triumph of the ideology of racism that is expressed in Mosley’s ‘quandary.’ Does he feel the same quandary over the ‘anti-Americanism’ that we saw during the Vietnam War, I wonder? Or is it because a black man is ‘leading’ the imperialist onslaught? But these are not new questions. The Raj in India, oppressed in the name of their British rulers as did Tubman in Liberia for Firestone.

I would suggest that racist ideology has taken on a new form, not that it wasn’t always part of the imperialist and colonialist instruments of domination and control, but that now, with 9/11 succinctly, if impotently, expressing the rage of the ‘have nots’, the ‘haves,’ fearful of this rage, now articulates racism in a new form, only now they call it the ‘clash of civilisations.’ Fundamental to this, is the question; which ‘civilisation’ does Mosley believe he belongs to?

The propaganda onslaught has entered a new phase, one not wholly unconnected to the end of the ‘Red Menace’. If anything, this new phase is more explicit in the way it manipulates the ideology of racism, especially as the poor of the world beats a path to the door of the rich and rather than knocking, it now wants to knock it down. A line has been drawn in the sand, both figuratively and literally.

Black man’s burden?

When referring to his father’s feelings of impotence and rage, Mosley tells us:

“”Burn, baby, burn” was the catchphrase of the riotous Sixties. Those words were screaming in my father’s mind…. His smouldering wrath was justified in his experience…. America was afraid of my father…. Once again my father’s seminal story rears its head. This time it’s white America saying: they couldn’t be at war with me. I never did anything to those people. But white America had to wake up, if just a little and realise that dark America was writhing in an endless nightmare. Seeing my father so wretched over his decision to stay at home during the riots made me very insecure.””

But instead of deciding which side of the line he is on, Mosley says:

“I find myself, oddly, in the position that whites found themselves in regard to my father’s generation. Here I am, feeling no emnity towards the people who hate me. They celebrate when I’m attacked, and pray for my downfall.”

All that is missing from this statement is, ‘I never did anything to those people.’ Such is the power of the ideology of the oppressor that Mosley has the oppressed blaming themselves for feeling that they are hated and oppressed. A sorry state of affairs indeed when the guilt of the father is visited on the son instead of where it truly belongs, on the imperialist oppressor.

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