Naming Activist Fallacies: The Separatist Paradise

Naming Activist Fallacies: The Separatist Paradise October 1, 2010

By Scotlyn

Apologies, folks, this post took a bit longer than promised. I have been struggling for two weeks or so to write a post on the activist fallacy of the “Righteous Victim,” but it seems that the post which wants to be written first is the fallacy of the “Separatist Paradise.” This concept, the concept that we will be safer, or happier, or freer, in the company of others of our own kind, (and sometimes accompanied with a concept of “our own kind” as being special, exceptional, even) often underlies certain types of nationalism – it was a defining feature of Hitler’s Third Reich, of the Basque separatist movement in France and Spain, and it has had an influence on strains of Irish nationalism. It is likewise a defining feature of Zionist philosophy, and it has had a huge influence, for awhile, on the black power movement in the 70’s and on feminism in the 80’s and various other liberation movements in history. Currently, I see it as a motivating force in the development of the tea party, which seems to be unable to articulate its aims exactly, but which have something to do with finding common cause with “folk like us.”

The underlying concept of fairness that has always underwritten the struggle for a more equitable society, is not, I think, an arcane or complex one – most of us were able to make a pretty effective “Argument from Fairness” in kindergarten, when Charlie wouldn’t share the paste, or when the teacher kept picking Sarah to hand out the crayons. Therefore, it is rarely necessary to persuade people of the benefits of fairness in and of itself – most people are already mightily convinced on that score. The battle that we must continually fight is about where we should draw the circle that includes the people that we believe are entitled to fair treatment, and that excludes those who we believe do not. (For the sake of brevity, and in memory of a place where valuable moral lessons are often learned, alongside other important issues such as bladder control, permit me a “kindergarten-ish” term – let’s call this our Fairness Circle).

The reasons for making exclusions from our Fairness Circle are many, and they are more or less persuasive, depending on our personal experiences or upbringing. The consequences of making exclusions from our Fairness Circle are, of course, severe on the excluded – beyond the pale, anything goes – threats, extortion, theft, dispossession, rape, torture, murder, denial of justice, denial of rights, silencing of speech. If we can be persuaded that the members of a specific group are a threat to us, then excluding them from our Fairness Circle, either temporarily or permanently, until the threat is neutralised, is traditionally an easy sell. Think Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib. A variation on this theme is if we think members of a certain group may hurt us in the future, in which case ejecting them from our Fairness Circle before they can do so, can be seen as a pre-emptive strike. Think internment of Japanese Americans, and confiscation of their homes and businesses, during the Second World War. If we can be persuaded that, in a variety of ways, people are somehow “not like us,” (lots of relevant words here – childlike, primitive, inferior, uncivilised, fanatical, evil, elite, monstrous, disgusting, treacherous, etc) then the task of persuading us that our kindergarten-simple concepts of fairness and equality simply do not apply to them is made so much easier. Such words have been variously used during the course of American history to deny some or all of the benefits of the American Fairness Circle to black people, women, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, gay people, native people, communists, trade unionists, and others, seizing always on this or that identity tag that marks out membership in the excluded group.

The struggle that must be waged in each case is to demonstrate that the excluded group belongs within the Fairness Circle fold, where we can all agree that its members are perfectly entitled to the same standards of fair treatment as everyone else, rather than outside it, where they may continue to be discriminated against. But in arguing that, yes, people with black skin, or that, yes, people with vaginas, or that, yes, people whose parents had them circumcised or baptised as infants, happen to be people, just like other people, we who are in the struggle may get hung up on this issue of difference. Whatever the marker is that initially led to us being in the excluded group, it can take on a magical, powerful aura of its own – a fatal attraction, if we allow it to ensnare us in its glamour. And a fatal distraction, if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that the goal is to find a separate safe place where we can set up our own Fairness Circle, beyond the reach of those who excluded us from theirs.

Terry Pratchett calls us “Pan narrans,” the story-telling ape, many liberation movements of people who have experienced exclusion, intimidation and discrimination, are held together by the story of their sufferings, and by the story of how those shared sufferings make that people special. And how we will naturally be happiest and safest in the company of others in our “special” group. I want to illustrate my point with two different takes on the same story – the story of the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy 34:1-5 tells the story of Moses, who having led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and having placed them on the road to the Promised Land, is not permitted to go there himself. However, he is permitted an eagle’s eye view of the Promised Land from the mountain top, just before he dies.

“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab upon mount Nebo… And the Lord said to him: This is the land, for which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: I will give it to thy seed. Thou hast seen it with thy eyes, and shalt not pass over to it. And Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, by the commandment of the Lord:”

The biblical story of the liberation of a people formerly enslaved and suffering, is a powerful story. As we shall see, it has an archetypal resonance, even today. But the original story of the land that God had promised to Israel also tells that it had people living in it already. So was God promising the Israelites a shared inheritance, a land in which all God’s children could live in peace and brotherhood? Not so:

Deuteronomy 7:1-8
“When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

This is the story of a liberation, but it is fatally flawed. The Israelites are not liberated because slavery is wrong, but to fulfill an oath that God has made. And in order to help God fulfill His oath to them, the people of Israel must destroy the people who already live in the land God recklessly promised to them. They are not to find common cause with the native inhabitants, they must instead believe that they are called to be a “special people.” If they were to find common ground between themselves and the Canaanites, they might be tempted to spare them.

The biblical Promise to Israel, therefore, is a Separatist Paradise – a Special land for a Special people, one where they would reside in covenant with God, but enter no covenant with any other earthly people. To my mind, this is not the story of a true liberation. Or, it is the story of a liberation that got sidetracked away from the true road of liberation based on the rights of all humans, down the cul-de-sac of “liberation” based on special privileges for the chosen few. But, if people gain the right to the land because God has chosen them to be special, what happens if, or when, God chooses differently?

It is interesting what happens with the story of the Promised Land in the hands of Martin Luther King Jr, one of the greatest orators on the theme of liberation in the 20th century. He draws on a deep well of Biblical symbolism in his speeches, as expressed in the subversive tradition of Gospel music. Just as generations of slaveholders had found comfort in Scripture for their slaveholding ways, generations of slaves had been inspired with the hope of deliverance by the biblical story of the Israelites being brought out of slavery in Egypt into their promised land. In Memphis, in April 1968, the night before his assassination, Dr King gave a poignant speech in which he presciently invokes the possibility of his death, saying it does not cause him fear or dismay, because, like Moses, he has been to the mountain top:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

But, there are differences, huge differences in Dr King’s use of this imagery. And by changing key features of the story, he avoids the biblical Separatist Paradise fallacy. Take a look at his “I have a Dream” speech, given in Washington DC in a more optimistic 1963. The Promise being claimed in Dr King’s speech is not God’s Covenant for a Special people, and it is not a promise to be claimed the expense of any other person. Rather, Dr King shows that the Promise being claimed in that speech, was based on a human covenant – a human covenant which promised the same rights to every citizen:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
    But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

The danger of Separatism, of Exceptionalism is that it comes to base its claims not on true justice, or rights, or fairness, but on Special Privilege. Which is seductive. But once we argue for a special privilege – once we claim a “right” for ourselves, that we are unwilling to grant to others, we have lost our fight for rights, and the only road we can travel is to be the most persuasive as to our entitlement to special privileges.

Dr King unfailingly avoided this pitfall and his speeches still have an illuminating quality for anyone who cares to study a path of liberation and justice. He said, “I know that justice is indivisible, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are all in this together. There is only one fight for justice and we must keep waging it always on behalf of one another. And there is only one Fairness Circle – and every human being on earth belongs inside it.

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