Intellectual Diatribe and Modern Slavery

For the past year I have absorbed the intellectual engagement of academic and media figures like Jordan Peterson (albeit a Canadian), Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, and others. They are steeped in intellectual rigor, and they are very passionate about which they speak, and I believe they are genuine about it. However, I cannot help but come to the end of this period thinking that they are able to pontificate merrily about the so-called regressive left, and postmodernism, socialist doctrine and so forth, because there were people on the left who have fought for the last 200 years to secure freedoms that everyone can enjoy.

The problem I have with conservative and liberation white intellectuals in America is that their rhetoric is built upon the backs of those who built this society. Much like in Ancient Greece, where Plato and Aristotle could roam free and unencumbered, walking around public squares developing their philosophies completely ignoring the presence of the slaves that ensured their leisure activities. In fact, Aristotle developed a rationale called Natural Slave Theory, where he argued that essentially some people lack the reasonable capacity to be free, and therefore would be much better off being slaves.

Rubin, as a gay white man who coins the term “regressive left”, effectively calls himself a classical liberal to inculcate himself to this new collective that exalts the individual over the collective – quite the irony which he even acknowledges. He rails against identity politics, and what he calls the “victim circus” – where every group is trying to demonstrate who is the biggest victim of oppression. He feels comfortable around figures like Shapiro, Peterson and others, and has given them platform via his online talk show and public forums.

Yet Rubin completely ignores the fact that two trans people of color – Marsh P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera – sparked the Stonewall Riots of 1968 and subsequently were the catalysts for the gay rights movement that eventually allowed him to marry a man and become a public figure with a lucrative salary. The fact that he can openly declare his homosexual status and not only not receive major backlash but can earn a decent living functioning in the public eye is not because of his newly found peers – it is debatable whether they see them as their equal – but because of the 50-year struggle of people who share his identity.

Though there are those on the left who do not represent well in the political sphere, one should not condemn the whole because it is politically expedient, and more disingenuously, because it allows one to enter exclusive circles that one otherwise would not. This is the gross error of not only Rubin, but everyone who is attempting to critique the left.

Black people in this country have long had to deal with black conservative intellectuals like Thomas Sowell whom have railed against essentially black collectivism and critique the entire breadth of American history that calls for black people to campaign for individualism versus collectivism, and to champion the free market capitalist system. Yes, it is true that other blacks owned slaves. The dynamic of freed slaves owning slaves happened in every tribe and civilization throughout human history. It is also the case that oppressed people have engaged in the same practices. In Africa women practice Female Genital Mutilation upon their girls. It is the process of complicity in an oppressive system, where people are psychologically broken down and remanufactured in those ways and behaviors. That does not make the practice or the system acceptable. Stockholm syndrome is real, but that makes it no less dysfunctional. And then you have disciples of Sowell like Larry Elder, who has a powerful personal narrative, but his conclusions I vehemently disagree, much like Clarence Thomas, whom also contains a profound personal narrative within his body, but who twisted his matriculation at Yale as something of embarrassment, even an abomination in terms of racial preferences, and as a result became a staunch opponent of Affirmative Action.

But this is also an important and critical part of human history, because we are complex human beings, that no individual is going to react and comport themselves exactly in the way their culture may dictate, or how historical events unfold. Children of abuse will develop differently; some become abusers, others fight tooth and nail against it. At the end of the day, we should acknowledge the brutality of the system, and work assiduously to fundamentally change it. To do otherwise is only to make intellectual hamster wheel arguments that gets us no closer to equity than we were before.

On a personal note, and with digression, I have real problems with those who are so critical of protest movements who have never engaged in activism themselves. I know from experience that everyone has a role, and not everybody will be in the streets holding up signs and rallying. However, for someone to sit on the sidelines and basically do nothing, and then have such strong opinions about those who do, is ridiculous and frankly outrageous, and they need to be quiet and sit down like they have been doing all along. Either do something or say nothing.

So, as I present different sides to arguments and the players that make them to my students, I have come to a full circle in being as objective as I can. I may be a bit more tempered, but the fire of protest still burns within. I will always be that kid from DC who threw his fist up against South African apartheid, both Gulf Wars; mass incarceration; the school to prison pipeline; freeing political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal, Marshall Eddie Conway, Leonard Peltier, the Cuban Five, the Angola Three, Stanley Tookie Williams and Tyrone Davis; fighting for HIV/AIDS research, education funding, marriage equality, living wage rights.

No matter what iteration I take, that rebel nature is inside me. I will always be the human intellectual, artist, activist, professor and community organizer, and I will never sacrifice who I am or the history that lifts me up to become a token for an exclusive club that never cared about me or the people in the first place. There is nothing regressive about all my people who fought side by side from the Mississippi to the Appalachian Mountains to make comfortable seats on polished stages inside immaculate buildings for these conservative and libertarians who make casual jokes about them.


Ron Kipling Williams